In late March a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, was destroyed, almost certainly by North Korean saboteurs. Given that North Korea, a vast Stalinist gulag masquerading as country, depends on the generosity of South Korea and the international community for its very survival, the brazenness of the attack defied logic. Like an adolescent child testing the boundaries of parental authority, the North Koreans have perpetrated a number of outrages, ranging from its nuclear weapons program to the sale of advanced missile technology to other rogue regimes to egregious human rights abuses to targeted killings, daring South Korea and the U.S. to do something about it.
For a while, at least, both countries refused to take the bait. Rather than confront the North and risk a devastating war or, almost as frighteningly, an implosion that would create a refugee crisis that would cripple the region for decades, the South Korean left extended a hand of friendship. It's no exaggeration to say that South Korean aid has helped keep millions of North Koreans alive despite disastrous economic policies that have brought the country, which once had some of the most advanced economies in East Asia, to the brink of starvation.
Indeed, there were at least some on the South Korean left who saw the U.S. as the source of tension. Early on, the Bush administration promised to put pressure on North Korea, labeling it a member of the "axis of evil." But sensing the intractability of the threat posed by North Korea and its nuclear weapons program, and keenly aware of how the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq had stretched the capacities of the U.S. military, President Bush backed off in his second term and moved to a more conciliatory, cautious stance.
Now, however, South Korea is led by President Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party, a conservative who sharply condemned the so-called "sunshine policy" of his predecessors. Before South Korea's democratic breakthrough, the country's military governments worked hand-in-glove with the U.S. in its rivalry with the Soviet Union and its allies, including North Korea.
It is hardly surprising that many in the democratic opposition developed anti-American sentiments. Many believed, rather naively, that their authoritarian rulers were little more than puppets of string-pulling U.S imperialists. Others, particularly in the older generation, saw the partnership with the U.S. as essential to South Korean security and prosperity. This is the worldview of President Lee Myung-bak, who is confident that the U.S. will support him. So far, he's been proven right. President Obama has pledged to work with South Korea. The White House issued a statement endorsing South Korea's demand for an immediate apology from North Korea for the destruction of the Cheonan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is working to assemble an international coalition at the United Nations to strengthen sanctions against North Korea.
This is a series of events that could have transpired in almost any decade of the American century. But there is a difference. This crisis is unfolding against the backdrop of a world going through a massive power shift. The U.S. remains the world's richest and most powerful country, yet it faces new constraints. When we consider the scale of our fiscal woes, we have a hard time envisioning what tightening our belts will really mean. Conservatives and liberals alike tend to assume that the world will look more or less the same, with the U.S. remaining firmly in the driver's seat. At worst, we'll have to raise taxes and cut spending, but our ability to bend the world to our will remain fully intact.
This, alas, is very far from true. In 2003 the U.S. vanquished the Iraqi military in a matter of weeks and occupied a large, hostile, oil-rich country in the heart of the Arab world. During that time, the U.S. military learned a great deal about waging war against non-state actors. But of course others learned a few things as well. Every terrorist organization that sees the U.S. as an implacable foe learned a great deal about the vulnerabilities of a liberal, open society like our own. And rival armies discovered how to use cheap, off-the-shelf technologies to bog down the world's smartest, most well-equipped, most effective military. The U.S. could defeat a rogue state like Iraq in 2010 as surely as it did in 2003. Rest assured that it would be a longer, harder and far more expensive fight. It is by no means obvious that the American public would be willing to pay twice or three times as much for the same decidedly ambiguous result that we see in today's Middle East.
The U.S. has military commitments that span the globe. Under the North Atlantic Treaty, we've essentially pledged to defend the borders of Turkey, a country that has territorial disputes with Syria and that is ringed by flashpoints of ethnic conflict on its southern and western borders with Iraq and Iran, as though they were our own. We've made a similarly rock-solid commitment to Japan and South Korea. Small numbers of U.S. military personnel are situated throughout Europe and East Asia, and many are hostages to fortune--a promise that in the event of a serious conflict, our women and men in uniform will be among the first to die.
There is an elegant logic to this arrangement, and it has underwritten an era of peace and prosperity that far surpasses any other. It is very hard to think of other ways we might guarantee global security. Other affluent countries have been extremely reluctant to commit resources to policing the world's most violent regions. International organizations, by their very nature, depend on the generosity and forbearance of their members, which isn't always forthcoming.
It is fair to say that the U.S. has done the difficult and expensive job of underwriting global security because it is the only country that can. That is deeply admirable, and every American should be proud of what U.S. military and diplomatic efforts have accomplished in the decades since the end of the Second World War. But the cost of maintaining these commitments is rising fast, and because our ability to sustain the cost is arguably decreasing as we age and as our economy goes through a wrenching transition, we have to ask: Is it right to expect the U.S. to avenge the Cheonan?